Los Angeles Times
June 27, 2004

Activism Beckons a New Generation of Cambodians
Khmer Girls in Action, an all-female group, tackles issues within a traditional community that dissuades women from speaking out.
By Jean-Paul Renaud, Times Staff Writer

Ra Pok’s mother always told her to never talk to men, never argue with those in authority and never get involved in politics.

Pok, 20, did the opposite.

At 16, she joined Khmer Girls in Action, an all-female Cambodian
organization. The group’s goals: preventing unjust deportation of Cambodian immigrants, sponsoring leadership workshops for women and organizing cultural events.

“We need to step up and come up and talk about the struggles that we’re facing,” said Pok, sitting in the organization’s second-floor office in Long Beach. “If I don’t do this type of work, who will?”
She said the group’s members, who are between 14 and 21, struggle within a community that equates political activism with violence and dissuades women from speaking out.

“My mother expects women to be at home,” Pok said. “She thinks it’s a waste of time and we should be at home taking care of our brothers. We have a culture of fear to challenge the status quo.”

The new generation of Cambodians, many born in the United States, did not experience the political persecution their parents fled during the Pol Pot regime. Teens and young adults are more likely to get involved, said Que Dang, the group’s executive director.

“You’re seeing this hybrid. We have different values that aren’t so
traditional,” said Dang, 32.

Khmer Girls in Action was born from a larger nonprofit called HOPE (Health, Opportunity, Problem Solving, Empowerment). Members broke away and established the all-female group in 2001 to help Southeast Asians in Long Beach.

The organization, now with about 20 members and grants from such groups as the Ford Foundation and the Liberty Hill Foundation, made some HOPE projects its own.

For its first campaign, an anti-sexual harassment initiative in 1999, the
group surveyed 400 teenage girls at Polytechnic High. It found that nine out of 10 peers – Asian and non-Asian – experienced sexual harassment at school.

“People didn’t know where sexual harassment started versus harmless
flirting,” Dang said.

After the survey was done, Khmer Girls in Action invited Long Beach city and school officials to a Buddhist temple to discuss the results. From that meeting, officials implemented mandatory sexual harassment awareness training for teachers and students, an improved grievance policy and a complaint hotline. After that success, members began working on Cambodian immigrant rights, the issue they feel more than any other plagues a community still haunted by a bloody past.

California is home to the largest Cambodian population in the U.S. – –
more than 70,000, according to the latest U.S. Census figures. Many are refugees from the communist revolution of 1975 in which the Khmer Rouge overthrew the Cambodian government. About 1.5 million people were executed, died in labor camps or starved during the ensuing 13-year civil war.

In 1993, U.N.-sponsored elections restored peace, but not before more than 130,000 Cambodians – like Pok and her mother and sister – fled to the U.S.

Pok said she was born in a refugee camp somewhere in Thailand, near the Cambodian border. She said her mother still tells of escaping from the labor camp, of running through wilderness in hopes of crossing into Thailand, of barely making it to an airplane that would fly them to the United States.

Pok says she cries each time she hears the story. And it’s just one of the heart-wrenching tales told within the peach-colored walls of the
organization’s office.

Before 2002, Cambodia did not accept repatriated citizens, but that year it allowed the United States to return those in violation of immigration law. Cambodian noncitizens who’d been sentenced to at least a year in prison could be deported.

“People have moved on with their lives, and all of a sudden they face
deportation,” Dang said. “We think deportation is inhumane. People
shouldn’t be treated differently just because they weren’t born here.”

Many of those facing possible deportation, Dang said, left their country at a young age. As a result, they have difficulty speaking Cambodian or understanding the culture. Khmer Girls in Action educates Cambodians – women and men – on immigration law, , encourages citizenship and counsels those who face deportation. It connects people with immigration attorneys, helps them with paperwork and gives them moral support during deportation
hearings. For member Sophya Chung, deportation is more than a group initiative; it’s about family. Her oldest sister, 24, has been in a
detention center near San Francisco for more than nine months after serving a sentence for petty theft and drug possession.

Chung, 20, said her sister left Cambodia when she was 4 but could be sent back after her deportation hearing.

“When that happened, I had to find out about how deportation affects me,” said Chung, who joined Khmer Girls in Action at 16.

When members began doing immigration and deportation work, they realized that many first-generation Cambodian Americans had lost much of their culture. They don’t speak the language or know the history of their parents’ homeland, Dang said.

To reunite young Cambodians with their culture, the group began sponsoring workshops where members can write poetry, read stories and perform plays about Cambodia. “There’s not a lot of history books that really teaches them about their history,” Dang said. “It’s like a way to explore their past.”

The workshops also develop the girls’ leadership skills. Each summer, about 16 girls recruited from Polytechnic High, Woodrow Wilson High and Robert A. Millikan High participate in a seven-week training course on such leadership skills as public speaking and coordinating rallies. This summer, the group will launch its own census to record statistics about Long Beach’s Cambodian population.

For all of its success, the group’s biggest obstacle sometimes is parents. “If we were an all-male program, it’d be easier,” Dang said. “With girls, there’s a lot of protection. For us, there’s a lot of convincing. There’s a lot of talking and persuading.”

Too often, Dang finds herself sitting in the living room of a potential
member’s house, talking to parents about why it’s important that their
daughter become more active in the community.

“A lot of the struggles and challenges are at home,” she said.

Leave a Reply